There Is No Pie

I wrote this article for the RWANYC newsletter a couple of months ago, and now seems like a good time to republish it.

A couple of years ago, I wrote an article for RWR about scarcity mindset. It was written in part as a response to a lot of bad author behavior I’d observed, including an author who wrote an article for a big publication arguing that J.K. Rowling should quit writing so that the rest of us could get a piece of the pie.

My response was basically: there is no pie. It’s a common misperception that there’s a finite number of readers and that one author’s success will thus signal another author’s failure. But this fails to take into account the vast number of readers out there, particularly for romance. And there are romance readers who buy and read hundreds of books a year. With a reading culture like that, the potential for any author’s book to be a bestseller is high.

The scarcity/abundance model is one often applied to personal finance, actually, but I think it’s a good model to apply to the way one approaches her career. Think of it this way: if you believe in scarcity, you are more likely to act competitively, be stingier with your resources, be selfish in your promotion. You assume resources are scarce, in other words, so you fight to get yours. If you believe in abundance, you know there’s enough to go around, so you’ll share more, be open to more opportunities, and share your knowledge. The abundance mindset is one where we all have the potential to be successful; indeed, if one succeeds, we all succeed. The rising tide lifts all boats, right?

My theory at the time I wrote the RWR article was that one of the things that motivates a lot of bad author behavior is scarcity mindset, the idea that there’s only so much success to go around, so if another author is successful, that means I won’t be. Which is BS, frankly, because success is not zero-sum. The vast number of readers and the vast number of books sold per year means that any given authors potential reader base could, in fact, be huge. Especially if one writes a great book that catches readers’ imaginations.

So here’s a thing I’m seeing lately that I find troubling: the idea that the success of diverse books means the established straight, white authors get a smaller piece of the pie.

But again: there is no pie.

When I get asked for publishing advice, I always tell people to act as though anything were possible. In other words, placing limits on ourselves is how we get in our own way. Can you imagine if J.K. Rowling had thought, “Well, no fantasy YA series with boy wizards exist, so this book is doomed to failure.” That’s crazy talk. Sure, New York publishing is conservative in what they except, careful to make decisions based on what they think will sell, but at the end of the day, a good book is a good book. And we all know how things turned out for Ms. Rowling.

A lot of diverse authors and authors of diverse books start at a disadvantage, which I think is important to acknowledge. I could go into details, but we’ve talked about them at RWANYC meetings, and a lot of these issues were highlighted by Jennifer Baker from We Need Diverse Books at her talk at the May Brunch. The highlight reel includes things like segregating diverse books in brick-and-mortar stores, ineffective marketing plans, and a mostly-white publishing industry that has struggled to branch out from what it knows to be successful. (To name just a few issues.)

But we are making progress, and that includes authors of diverse books who pushed to have them published, and who developed savvy marketing plans, and have earned accolades and broke sales records and proved that their books are worthwhile. The good news is that publishers are more receptive to a wider range of romance novels, and RWA has, over the last few years, made great strides in advocating for diverse romance.

I’ve seen a lot of remarkable changes just in the last seven years since I submitted my first novel for publication, and that’s a very short amount of time. Publishers who wouldn’t even look at books with LGBT characters seven years ago are publishing them to great acclaim now. An increasingly diverse slate of novels gets reviewed by Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly every month. Romance novels by non-white and/or non-heterosexual authors are getting more attention, and rightly so. The conversation we’ve been having about diverse books for the last couple of years has made tangible progress possible. We’ve still got a ways to go, granted, but the fact that we’ve come so far, I think, means we should continue to operate as if we can go farther. All things are possible.

Naturally, as with any kind of progress, there’s pushback.

But publishing is not like a dinner table. It’s not like there are only ten chairs, and if we give a new author a chair, someone else loses out on a great meal. The industry doesn’t work that way. Readers don’t work that way. One of the best things about the increasing viability of self-publishing as a career path is that the potential exists for any book to find its audience, and as such, a greater diversity—and I mean that in all senses of the word—of books is available to readers. There’s nothing holding you back from putting your crazy idea, the one you’ve heard is not really marketable, out there to find out if it does, indeed, have a market. If you want to write about lesbian astronauts making scientific discoveries and falling in love in 1985, you can find a platform for that book now. (Hell, I kind of want to read that book, and I just made it up on the fly.)

And if you want to write about a woman who owns a florist shop and a man who works as a carpenter who find love in a small town, that’s totally cool, too. The lesbian astronauts won’t push your book off the shelf. If all things are possible—if we work within a mindset of abundance—these books can sit on the same shelf, even.

The romance genre is not a pie. We don’t divvy up slices among authors. (If we did, Nora Roberts would have that slice my youngest brother cuts every Thanksgiving that’s like, a quarter of the pie, even though he claimed to only want a sliver, you know?) New authors make the RWA honor roll every week. Books by all manner of authors with all manner of characters hit bestseller lists routinely. The success of another author has no impact on you unless you let it.

I’d like to think we can all work together to help each other succeed. We can share resources, experience, support, etc., working together to make the publishing industry better. It takes hard work, yes, and a career in romance writing is a long game, but I honestly believe we can continue to make progress together.